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Revealing Beauty: Q&A with Cooper Hewitt Senior Curator Ellen Lupton

Revealing Beauty: Q&A with Cooper Hewitt Senior Curator Ellen Lupton

Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial is the fifth installment of the museum’s signature contemporary design exhibition series. With a focus on aesthetic innovation, Beauty celebrates design as a creative endeavor that engages the mind, body, and senses. Curated by Andrea Lipps, Assistant Curator, and Ellen Lupton, Senior Curator of Contemporary Design, the exhibition features more than 250 works by 63 designers and teams from around the globe, and is organized around seven themes: extravagant, intricate, ethereal, transgressive, emergent, elemental, and transformative.
The exhibition is on view until August 21st and is not to be missed. The book is as much inspiring as the exhibit so if you don’t have a chance to visit you definitely should get the book.
WantedDesign asked a few questions to Ellen Lupton, curator of the exhibit, to get her personal vision on Beauty and learn more about the theme and the process of building the exhibition.

WantedDesign: Why the topic of beauty in 2016? Do you feel a strong desire, or need, for beauty in our society?
Ellen Lupton: Andrea Lipps and I both worked on the previous Triennial, which focused on heavy issues such as climate change and global poverty. We wanted to turn in a different direction with this exhibition, because the sensual side of design is also important. Yes, designers are problem-solvers, but they also create ideas, sensations, and experiences that stimulate the mind and body. This side of design sometimes gets overlooked in today’s discourse.

WD: Standards of beauty evolve with time and are the products of an era. How would you define beauty today?
EL: Beauty is a reaction. We each have our own experience, based on our time, place, culture, and personal drives and cravings. Beauty is what we see, grasp, behold, and respond to. Beauty is the ultimate user experience. It’s an invitation. It demands interaction between people and objects.

Installation view of "Beauty at Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial." Photo by Matt Flynn © 2016 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Installation view of “Beauty at Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial.” Photo by Matt Flynn © 2016 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

WD: Beauty is often the quest for an emotion, something intangible that is hard to materialize or reproduce. How do you reconcile this immaterial concept with the contingencies of an exhibition?

EL: We worked with Calvin Tsao and his amazing team at Tsao & McKown Architects to design the exhibition. The exhibition design uses subtle shifts of light and a careful arrangement of objects to create an environment that harmonizes our content with the space of the museum. Areas overflowing with intense color and pattern give way to areas dominated by stark monochrome materials. There are areas of light, and areas of darkness. The exhibition design captures the shimmer of beauty as an idea.

WD: How did you search for Beauty for the exhibition?

EL: We worked with a panel of international curators to generate an initial list of ideas. Then Andrea and I sorted through many possibilities and got lots of advice from other curators and thought leaders inside Cooper Hewitt. Ultimately, we used our gut to make a final selection of designers to include, and these designers helped us choose the best pieces to make a point about beauty. We also conducted many interviews with the designers, which are featured in our gorgeous book. We asked everyone what “beauty” means to them.

The Haas Brothers (California, USA, founded 2010): Nikolai Haas and Simon Haas with The Haas Sisters of Monkeybiz (Khayelitsha township, Cape Town, South Africa, founded 2014); Sculpture, Fartin Odeur, from the Afreaks series, 2015; Glass beads, wire, wood, mixed fiber stuffing, and cast bronze; Courtesy of R & Company, New York and The Haas Brothers, Los Angeles. Monkeybiz is a nonprofit income-generating bead project founded in 2000.

WD: Can you tell us more about the selection process? Did you decide on the themes first or did they become evident only in retrospect?

EL: The themes emerged from the material we were finding. We sorted through images of work, creating different “piles” as we saw commonalities between the work, such as “intricacy” and “glamour.”

WD: Isn’t beauty subjective? Or on the contrary do you think that genuine beauty is universal?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And in the ear, skin, mouth, and gut.

WD: Selected projects of the exhibit are often Beauty resulting from the process, or from the story that comes with or behind the project. It certainly hard for you to say, but is there one or two projects in the exhibit that you particularly like, and why?

The pieces by Neri Oxman are spectacular, original, and profound. She has used 3D printing to create prototypes for a future system of organs to wear outside the body, and she and her team at MIT’s Mediated Matter group have created a method for 3D printing glass. These ideas have enormous potential as useful technologies, yet they also stun the eye with their complexity and luminosity. Gareth Pugh’s garments made from black drinking straws demonstrate the “transfiguration of the commonplace,” to quote philosopher Arthur Danto. What could be more beautiful than that?

Neri Oxman (Israeli-American, active in USA, b. 1976) and MIT Mediated Matter Group in collaboration with Stratasys and Deskriptiv; Rendered by Deskriptiv: Christoph Bader and Dominik Kolb; Produced by Stratasys. Rendering, back view of Otaared, from Wanderers collection, 2014 © Neri Oxman.

Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial is on view through August 21, 2016. Visit cooperhewitt.org for more information.

Cooper Hewitt is a partner and supporter of WantedDesign since year one.

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